Rich Hofmann: Eagles' cornerbacks stifling wideouts - so far
PEOPLE ARE asked to identify the best group on the Eagles' defense and they say it is the pass rushers. They are asked to point out the area of the greatest improvement and they say it is the linebackers. Through two games, it is hard to argue with either point, or with the great and crashing and crunching success of the front seven.
Meanwhile, the cornerbacks have quietly gone about the business of putting handcuffs on opposing wide receivers. And in this day, in this league so stricken by the scourge of passaholism, this might be the most important trend.
Everybody knows that each piece of a defense affects the others. And it is more than fair to say - especially in the second half of the Eagles' win last Sunday over Baltimore - that the pass rush took over in a significant way, not so much in sacks but in relentless annoyance, and that everyone else on that side of the ball benefited as a result.
But it works both ways. The truth is that the Eagles generated a ton of pressure last season - their 50 sacks tied for the NFL lead - and we did not witness coverage like this. The truth also is that solid initial coverage forces a quarterback to start considering second and third options and turns pass rushers into wildebeests.
So far, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha have pressed receivers at the line of scrimmage, and played a good amount of man-to-man, and competed like crazy. Rodgers-Cromartie can fly. Asomugha is more physical, more about using his hands. The rookie third corner, Brandon Boykin, is smart beyond his experience and has great recovery speed and leaping ability. And the whole package has neutered the wideouts of two teams now, the Browns and Ravens.
Neutered: 12 catches combined for opposing wideouts, 12 catches in two games for a total of 170 yards.
It was six catches thrown by the inexperienced Brandon Weeden and six catches thrown by the championship-caliber Joe Flacco. When viewed as a percentage of passes thrown, only 14 percent of them were completed to wide receivers. This is a very, very low number.
Here are some comparisons:
Eagles. . . 12 14%
Giants. . . 25 44%
Cowboys. . . 20 38%
Redskins. . . 22 25%
NFL Avg.. . . 23 34%
It is quite low compared to the rest of the league. It is quite low compared to what the Eagles did last season, when they had Asomugha pressing on one side and Asante Samuel playing soft on the other side and Rodgers-Cromartie spinning himself into the ground in the slot.
Rodgers-Cromartie said Wednesday what he has been saying all summer - that getting out of the slot and back to his natural position has made the difference. "It's all about being outside," he said.
This week, the theory gets tested by Rodgers-Cromartie's old teammate, Larry Fitzgerald. People will spend the week talking about how Rodgers-Cromartie was traded for Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, and doing that transactional analysis. But, assuming they spend a decent amount of time matched up, the Fitzgerald/Rodgers-Cromartie comparison would seem to be much more important.
From his viewpoint, Rodgers-Cromartie said concentration is the most important thing against his old team because "you know that they know how to attack you."
As for Fitzgerald, he said, "He's the same. They're going to force the ball to him. They're really going to get him. He's like the first, second and third option, so you know he's going to get the ball. The main thing is, just keep tight coverage on him and have the d-line go out there and do what they do."
Last week, New England held Fitzgerald to only one catch for 4 yards. Afterward, he proclaimed Patriots coach Bill Belichick to be the all-time football genius of the universe, or something.
"He's just a great player," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "There's no better way of putting it. He's one of the top players in the National Football League. I think he'll go down, when it's all said and done, as one of the top receivers to ever play the game. He loves to play, great attitude, strong, and physical. He has great hands."
It is kind of early yet for NFL stats. Two weeks really are just a blip. But if the Eagles can keep this up for 2 more weeks - with Fitzgerald in Sunday's game, and the Giants' Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in the following game - this really will be something.
Oh - and if they can keep the handcuffs in place, the Eagles likely will be 4-0.
Contact Rich Hofmann at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, or for recent columns go to philly.com/RichHofmann.